information overload

Everything, Everywhere, All The Time

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The web is a blessing and a curse: there is simply too much information. And it’s coming at us too quickly. Meanwhile, the tools we have to process the data flow are failing miserably, and yet, very few people are building us better ones. Instead, these days, it’s far easier to build the next great photo-sharing app than it is a better Gmail. It’s more fun to build a new social network for taking pictures of food than it is a tool that tells us exactly what we missed when we went offline for an hour. And no one, and I mean no one, is building a better RSS reader for a niche audience of serious news consumers.

Where are the magical email auto-responders that answer, tag and organize emails for us? Where are the intelligent calendars that integrate with messaging systems (social, email and otherwise), capable of reading text-based communications and turning them into appointments and meetings? Where are the automaters, the filters, the noise reducers? Where’s the Siri for everything?

Let’s start with email. As a tech bloggers, we tend to get a lot of email. But the email overload situation is not unique to this industry. It’s become such a common complaint that they now hold entire conferences devoted to the issue. There are some tools to help deal with the flow, or at the very least, allow us to step away from the inbox for a minute without completely losing track.

Quitting email is not the solution. (But it was an interesting experiment to watch.)

We already know the entire idea of how email works is broken. You send an email, and another one comes in response. You delete an email, so it’s sent again – you know, in case you missed it the first time around? The problem here is not just that there’s too much email, it’s that email is dumb. Gmail is dumb. Gmail, the one-time savior from the Inbox 1.0 era, was heralded as the second coming of email. Deliver us from email, deliver us unto Gmail. I sought that Gmail invite with a desperation that has never been matched since. It defined the era of the “invite only” beta. A secret club only a few can get in.

And now, Gmail blows. It’s been far too long since the platform has seen any real innovation (except for that Priority inbox thing, which is amazing). But tags? That you have to add yourself? That don’t intelligently learn from the millions of times you’ve used them to tag the exact same type of information? Search that takes you to an entirely new page, forcing you to leave the email you were in the process of composing? A suite of related products that aren’t actually smart enough to interact with each other?

Why can’t Gmail, for example, read my email and see that a phrase reading “are you available at 2 PM on Thursday?” is a meeting request, then automatically create the associated calendar entry? (Privacy, shmivacy, I’d opt in for that). Why shouldn’t a person’s email signature be parsed then added to their entry in the Gmail Address Book? And while we’re at it, have you seen that address book? It does almost nothing. It’s the simplest, most basic product for one of our most critical everyday systems. It’s a travesty.

I don’t mean to harp on Gmail – I couldn’t live without it. I even pay for the extra storage. And while Hotmail has made some impressive leaps in terms of spam fighting, gray-mail filtering, attachment handling, and general utility, its most useful integrations are obviously designed for use with Microsoft’s products – Live Photos, SkyDrive, OneNote, and other things I’m no longer using. (Although maybe it’s time that changed.)

In other words, email as a platform is ripe for disruption. It’s begging for it. Of course, it’s no small matter to build a better email platform, because you can’t really just build an email platform – you have to build an entire life and work management platform. That means email, tasks, contacts, calendar, CRM, voice, text, office and maybe even social. It’s no wonder we’re seemingly trapped in Gmail indefinitely.

Beyond email/Gmail, let’s not forget the other services that need to exist, but don’t. A web-based RSS reader that replaces Google’s, but runs faster, de-dupes, summarizes and lets you mark as read entire categories of related items, A social address book and personal CRM system that automatically tracks not just who you know and what they’re doing (tweets, status updates, etc.) but also a history of your communications, what you said to them last, where you recently saw them, when you need to respond to something they’ve posted online, and when you need to reconnect.

Why doesn’t my address book tell me when people changed jobs, had a baby, moved houses, asked for help, or tweeted something amazing? (What, I’m supposed to log into LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter for all that, all the time?) Shouldn’t I be able to peek at my address book product and see reminders of those work/life events, the way Facebook reminds me to say happy birthday to my friends? And if these are the types of things being built for enterprise CRM users, while aren’t they trickling down to the masses? We’re overloaded down here in the trenches, too, people. We need some tools.

Speaking of tools, why do you think the cloud task manager IFTTT is so popular? It filled a burning need for automation between services. If I do X, I want Y to happen automatically. It’s frankly one of the most innovative services to have sprung up lately, and all the more impressive for being bootstrapped into existence. But IFTTT is still too simple because you have to teach it what to do. You configure it with rules. We need better tools that learn what we need and then prompt us to accept their intervention.

We need tools that require less time, less training and, let’s get real here – less typing. The genius that is Siri’s potential (not the actual product  – it’s so beta, it’s alpha), is that you simply talk to the computer instead of typing in information into it. But it’s still a computer that needs your data input, it’s just a different format (voice, not text). Hooray for innovation, and for OK-ish speech recognition and for a safer way to text while driving, but I’m ready for a computer you don’t have to input much into at all. A truly useful system will see what you’re doing, learn from your activities, then begin to automate tasks for you. Not just in email, but everywhere. In everything. And all the time.

Here’s the starting point of that dream:

Computer: OK, every time she responds to Mr. Smith’s email, she says sorry, I’m not interested. Let’s compose a draft and prompt her to send it. Every time she gets an email from X, she tags it “FYI” and archives it without responding. Let’s do that, too, automatically. Oh look, her boss emailed, let’s text her about that. Oh, her friend emailed/Facebook/tweeted wanting to know if she’s free at 2 PM on Thursday, let’s check her calendar and find out. Nope, there’s a meeting then we just auto-scheduled. Let’s respond to the friend with some other suggestions. Oh look, every time she plugs in her phone, she syncs with iPhoto, then uploads to Flickr and Facebook. Let’s do that now too, but, hmm, let’s do it while she’s sleeping so as not to be a bother. Hey, I know, we could use read receipts so that we can auto-archive anyone who responds “just circling back – did you see this?” after getting theirs. Let’s introduce yes/no/maybe buttons that send out fast email responses. Let’s fill up the calendar with some suggested appointments. Hey, let’s call her dad and tell him how she’s doing. Let’s do the laundry! Let’s clean the house! Let’s walk the dogs!

(OK, maybe I got carried away there for a second).

Still, for god’s sake, Internet, do it for me already. You’re a machine. You’re supposed to be smarter than me by now.

P.S. Some companies I’d like to thank for thinking about this problem: AwayFind, PowerInbox, Contactually, Gist, Xobni, Greplin, CloudMagic, IFTTT, Dropbox Automator, ToutApp, Rapportive, Everpix

Image Credit: Daquella Manera on Flickr